Moral formalism: F. R. Leavis

F. R. Leavis became the major single target for the new critical theory of the 1970s. Both Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters (1979) and Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) bear witness to hisfr.jpg enormous, ubiquitous influence in English Studies from the 1930s onwards. Apropos of Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948), Williams remarks that by the early 1970s, in relation to the English novel, Leavis ‘had completely won. I mean if you talked to anyone about [it], including people who were hostile to Leavis, they were in fact reproducing his sense of the shape of its history.’ And more generally, Eagleton writes: ‘Whatever the “failure” or “success” of Scrutiny . . . the fact remains that English students in England today [1983] are “Leavisites” whether they know it or not, irremediably altered by that historic intervention.’ 

Leavis, profoundly influenced by Matthew Arnold and by T. S. Eliot (Leavis’s New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) in effect first taught the English how to ‘read’ The Waste Land), was, like Richards and Empson above, one of the new academics in Cambridge in the late 1920s and early 1930s  who turned the English syllabus away from the bellettrism of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and others, and put it at the centre of arts education in the university. His Education and the University (1943) – in part made up of essays published earlier, including the widely influential ‘A Sketch for an “English School”’ and ‘Mass Civilization and Minority Culture’ – bears witness to the fact that Leavis was an educator as much as he was a critic, and to the practical, empirical, strategically anti-theoretical nature of his work (as also do later works like English Literature in Our Time and the University, 1969, The Living Principle: English as a Discipline of Thought, 1975, and Thought, Words and Creativity, 1976). In a famous exchange with the American critic René Wellek, for example (see Leavis’s essay ‘Literary Criticism and Philosophy’, 1937, in The Common Pursuit, 1952), he defends his refusal to theorize his work by saying that criticism and philosophy are quite separate activities and that the business of the critic is to ‘attain a peculiar completeness of response [in order] to enter into possession of the given poem . . . in its concrete fullness’.

In addition to editing Scrutiny, Leavis taught generations of students – many of whom themselves became teachers and writers; was the informing presence behind, for example, the widely selling, ostensibly neutral but evidently Leavisite Pelican Guide to English Literature (1954–61) edited by Boris Ford in seven volumes; and produced many volumes of criticism and cultural commentary. All of these are indelibly imbued with his ‘theory’41f8P7chqeL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg – although resolutely untheorized in abstract terms – a theory which is dispersed throughout his work, therefore, and has to be extrapolated from it along the way.

Following Richards, Leavis is a kind of ‘practical critic’, but also, in his concern with the concrete specificity of the ‘text itself ’, the ‘words on the page’, a kind of New Critic too: ‘[the critic] is concerned with the work in front of him as something that should contain within itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise’ (‘The Function of Criticism’ in The Common Pursuit, 1952 – note the sideways reference to both Arnold and Eliot in the essay’s title). But to regard Leavis simply in this way, with its implication of inherent formalism and ahistoricism, is a mistake; for his close address to the text is only ever to establish the vitality of its ‘felt life’, its closeness to ‘experience’, to prove its moral force, and to demonstrate (by close scrutiny) its excellence. The passage from Eliot which gave Leavis his title for  speaks of the critic’s task as engaging in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’, and Revaluation (1936) is an Eliot-like sorting-out of the ‘true’ tradition of English poetry, just as The Great Tradition (1948) itself opens with the classic Leavisian ‘discrimination’ that ‘The great English novelists are’ Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad – a dogmatic and exclusive list which immediately suggests just how tendentious Leavis’s ‘true judgement’ may, in fact, be. A major plank in Leavis’s platform, in other words, is to identify the ‘great works’ of literature, to sift out the dross (‘mass’ or ‘popular’ fiction, for example), and to establish the Arnoldian and Eliotian ‘tradition’ or ‘canon’. This is necessary because these are the works which should be taught in a university English course as part of the process of cultural filtering, refining and revitalizing which such courses undertake on behalf of the nation’s cultural health. In particular, such works will promote the values of ‘Life’ (the crucial Leavisian word, never defined: ‘the major novelists . . . are significant in terms of that human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life’) against the forces of materialism, barbarism and industrialism in a ‘technologico-Benthamite’ society: they represent a ‘minority culture’, in other words, embattled with a ‘mass civilisation’.

Just as Leavis’s moral fervour distinguishes him from the more abstract or aesthetic formalism of the New Critics, so too does his emphatically sociological and historical sense. Literature is a weapon in the battle of cultural politics, and much of the ‘great’ literature of the past (especially but not exclusively, from before Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’ in the seventeenth century) bears witness to the ‘organic’ strength of pre-industrial cultures. The past and past literature, as for Arnold and Eliot once more, act as a measure of the ‘wasteland’ of the present age – although the work of the ‘great’ moderns (Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, for example), in its ‘necessary’ difficulty, complexity and commitment to cultural values, is also mobilized on ‘Life’s’ behalf in the inimical world of the twentieth century. As for the New Critics, too, great works of literature are vessels in which humane values survive; but for Leavis they are also to be actively deployed in an ethicosociological cultural politics. Paradoxically then, and precisely because of this, Leavis’s project is both elitist and culturally pessimistic. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in the twentieth century it became so profoundly popular and influential; had indeed until quite recently become naturalized as ‘Literary Studies’.

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  1. Literary Criticism of Friedrich von Schiller – Literary Theory and Criticism Notes

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